I had no intention of arriving in Stornoway last night and when I did I didn’t like it very much. It has all kinds of unexpected things like trees and people and, wait for it, traffic lights and roundabouts.
I was expecting it to be more on the same scale as Lerwick or possibly Kirkwall, so to be driving along (it was a miserable rainy night and so I thought I might as well go for a short drive, but it ended up that I just kept going) the peaty, rocky moorland and suddenly run into an area with trees was rather a shock. There weren’t just one or two; it wasn’t a plantation of evergreens planted for business purposes; and it wasn’t just a patch of stumpy scrub masquerading as a wood. No, these were full on, full grown, tall trees of all different varieties and there were lots of them.
Next it was the houses that struck me. There were lots of them and I wasn’t even in Stornoway yet. I was somewhere called Marybank which turned out to be a suburb of Stornoway. Yes, Stornoway has suburbs. Then suddenly there were cars everywhere and a set of traffic lights and another one and a one-way system and a roundabout and another one. Everyone seemed to be driving quite badly and I wondered if it was me, just not used to being among other vehicles. Then I wondered if they are driving badly, is it because they’re all out-of-towners who are as shocked as me by traffic lights and trees and don’t know how to handle it?
I drove around a bit, wasn’t impressed, then called at Tesco which had lots of empty shelves and was crowded with people who were manoeuvering in the aisles as badly as the drivers manoeuvre on the roads. Again I wondered if they were out-of-towners and not used to crowded supermarkets and the etiquette required to push a trolley in a socially acceptable manner.
So I left. I drove back out and stopped at the war memorial in Kinloch to camp for the night. There was a picnic bench and a nice view and a public toilet (with a shower) just down the road at the Kinloch Historical Society in Laxey. it had stopped raining and I planned a nice evening cooking and sitting outside making use of the picnic bench. But then the midges got me and I ended up cooking in a hurry – quick stir of the pasta, prolonged swatting of the midges – and then securing myself in my van to eat and read.
This morning looked nice, but as soon as I opened the van doors I was under midge attack again. I gave up any idea of a nice leisurely breakfast sitting at the picnic bench and drove down to the public toilet for a wash. There were no midges there so I made coffee and sat outside the toilets for a while. Not quite the leisurely breakfast with a view that I had envisioned.
Once finished, I headed back to Stornoway. I thought I should give it another go and as it was Sunday and nothing is supposed to happen on a Sunday due to everyone’s extreme religiosity and strict adherence of the sabbath (something which the checkout girl in Tesco had confirmed for me last night) I thought I could wander round and take photos without any people in the way.
I arrived back in town and parked by the waterfront and the public toilets (30p for the toilets and £1.50 for 3 hours parking during the week – parking and toilet charges are also something I didn’t expect, but at least being Sunday I didn’t have to pay for parking). After a quick walk round the town I still wasn’t impressed. A few interesting looking (closed) shops but mostly charity shops and everything seemed a bit grotty with lots of litter. I didn’t take many photos but instead headed across the bridge to the castle grounds to follow one of the walks in my walk book.
The castle, known as Lews Castle, was built in the 1840s by the then owner of Lewis, James Matheson. It was later owned by Lord Leverhulme who gave the grounds to the townspeople in 1924. The castle itself ended up being used as the local college until new premises were built beside it. Currently the castle is covered in scaffolding and green netting and not much of it can be seen. No-one seems sure of what its future use will be but there has been discussion of a luxury hotel or museum.
The grounds are extensive and full of those trees. Lots of paths wind their way through it and the walk I had was a four mile loop. I started on the walk a bit further in than the book said as I crossed the river leading into the harbour at the first bridge rather than the second. The tide was out and the river bed was dry and litter strewn so I didn’t feel any particular desperation to walk along more of it.
Once the harbour was reached it got nicer with yachts and seabirds and the CalMac ferry getting ready to depart. This is the one I’ll be on this time next week. I followed the path along the harbour wall which was crumbling in parts. I passed the visitor centre (closed, including the toilets, on Sunday). It looked nice inside and the book said it was a good place to stop so I must come back here for lunch before I leave. Outside there were some interesting looking seating/play areas such as seats made out of barrels and an old boat, but some of them were rotten.
As I got further round the harbour wall I could see the end of the bay and a lighthouse. The path climbed to a viewpoint before heading inland. At the viewpoint I was joined by a man who was waving his family off on the ferry. A born and bred Stornoway man he seemed to like his hometown and so I didn’t mention that so far I was unimpressed.
I followed the path inland alongside the River Creed (appropriate for a Sunday) where another man I chatted to for a while told me it was possible to see salmon (I didn’t). At a footbridge I turned right. The book then instructed me to turn left at the first fork and right at the second. I came upon the first fork much sooner than expected but followed the instructions. I should have followed my instincts and not assumed that the first fork was the first fork as it wasn’t and I ended up off route. However, I was glad I did. I climbed quite high on what turned out to be a loop and came out at a wonderful viewpoint overlooking everything and everywhere. I could see all of Stornoway laid out before me and could see the coastline on the other side. This reassured me that it wasn’t as huge as I’d first thought and it actually looked really pretty from high up. The shining sun probably helped of course.
As I sat there a man walked the other way and stopped to chat. We ended up chatting for quite a while. He’s originally from Durham and is a serious walker. He moved here eight years ago after his wife suggested it. They’d had several holidays here and liked it. Sadly, she was only able to enjoy her Lewisian life for under a year as she unexpectedly died from a heart attack. The gent has made his life here now though and plays the accordion at local pubs. He seemed quite lonely and I got the feeling it was through missing his wife rather than not getting to know people here.
We went our separate ways and I found my way down to the path I’d originally started on by the harbour wall. The walk I was supposed to be doing would have taken me past a monument to James Matheson so my wrong turning meant I missed out on this. However, if I had followed the walk accurately I would have missed out on the amazing viewpoint. I’d much rather have my version of the walk than the book’s so I’m quite glad I went wrong. It might even be enough to change my view of Stornoway!